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First Fox president joins fight against local station’s license renewal

Jamie Kellner, the first executive hire at Rupert Murdoch's fledging Fox, now questions the media mogul's character fitness.

Jamie Kellner, the first executive hire at Rupert Murdoch's fledging Fox, now questions the media mogul's character fitness.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participates in an interview with Fox Business Network's Maria Bartiromo in 2019. (Photo by Ron Przysucha)
Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo participates in an interview with Fox Business Network’s Maria Bartiromo in 2019. Bartiromo and Fox Business were involved in a defamation suit brought by Dominion Voting Systems that was settled earlier this year. (Photo by Ron Przysucha)

The first executive hired to oversee the development of the Fox Broadcasting Company is now joining a growing movement challenging the network’s application at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to renew its local TV license in Philadelphia.

On Tuesday, former Fox President Jamie Kellner filed a letter with the FCC in support of the Media and Democracy (MAD) Project’s petition to block the license renewal of WTXF (Channel 29) on the basis that the network’s cable news division settlement in the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit should be scrutinized by the agency as part of the process.

Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox, has a controlling ownership stake in Fox Corporation. The company operates Fox Television Stations, the parent subsidiary of WTXF and around two dozen other local TV stations, and Fox News Media, which oversees the Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network.

The Dominion lawsuit concerned matters on Fox’s cable news channels, with a specific focus on election-related conspiracy theories about Dominion’s voting machines used during the 2020 presidential election. Those conspiracy theories suggested glitches, or even deliberate alterations, switched votes from incumbent Donald Trump to Democratic challenger Joe Biden. The theories have never been substantiated with definitive proof.

There is also no proof that any of the conspiracy theories were perpetuated on local television news programming aired across any of the Fox-owned stations, which are operated separately from the cable networks. But MAD and its backers say that point is irrelevant, because Murdoch’s ownership and control of Fox as a whole means the Dominion settlement should be considered when evaluating WTXF’s license.

Specifically, opponents are challenging whether Murdoch and other executives would be able to pass a character test imposed by the FCC on prospective and current license holders for broadcast stations.

The matter has drawn a number of former Fox executives to the case, which is led by Preston Padden, one of Murdoch’s former business confidants. This week, Kellner became another high-ranking Fox executive from years past calling for the FCC to weigh Murdoch’s fitness to hold a broadcast license for WTXF, though he stopped short of saying the agency should block it entirely.

Kellner was instrumental at Fox in developing new ways for the network to compete at a time when the broadcast landscape was dominated by the “Big 3” — ABC (now part of Disney), CBS (Paramount) and NBC (Comcast).

One of those novel ideas was enlisting cable providers to distribute local Fox stations and affiliates in closer proximity to stations and affiliates from the other networks. Early on, cable systems simply placed Fox affiliates on a channel number that corresponded to their position on the broadcast dial — a move that put Fox, traditionally on UHF stations, at a disadvantage compared to the other networks, which were on VHF channels between 2 and 13.

After noticing Fox’s Dallas-area station scored high in the ratings, Keller and another executive, Andy Fessel, worked with consultant Paul McCarthy to develop a strategy that would see Fox earn lower cable channel positions in key markets. The strategy eventually grew to include favorable terms for cable platforms, including barter access to Fox’s national feed in markets where the network did not have a broadcast affiliate.

“In those days, our mission was to add competition to a world dominated by only three choices, and that was good for viewers, for advertisers, for local TV stations and for America,” Kellner wrote in his letter to the FCC on Tuesday. “In some ways, we awakened the marketplace to the idea of more choices and different types of programming that has led to the maxi-channel world we live in today.”

Kellner says those early cable distribution strategies not only helped Fox grow into a fourth network capable of competing against the other three, it paved the way for cable and satellite deals that made Fox News possible.

Kellner himself was instrumental in giving Fox a taste of America’s appetite for news. While president of the network, Fox urged its local affiliates to launch local news divisions. To help smaller outlets hamstrung by tighter budgets, Kellner and other executives developed a central news hub that distributed national news clips and full-fledged stories to affiliates to help beef up their news offerings.

“Unlike the news feeds provided today by Fox News Channel, our news feeds did not prominently feature advocates like Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell,” Keller noted, referring to two senior members of Trump’s legal team. (There is no evidence that WTXF, or any Fox-owned station, rebroadcast clips from Fox’s commentary programming involving Giuliani or Powell on any locally-produced newscast.)

Holding a broadcast station license is a privilege, and it is not uncommon for the FCC to field challenges to license applications and renewals from individuals and public interest groups. While rare, the agency has found in favor of such petitioners after evaluating the fitness of a license holder’s character.

Even rarer is to have former broadcast executives and other industry and agency stakeholders weighing in and supporting a petitioner’s license challenge. Late last month, a former FCC commissioner filed an informal objection to WTXF’s license renewal, as did the publisher of a former right-of-center news magazine.

Ultimately, the petitioners in this case still face an uphill battle, because the challenge involving WTXF’s license renewal doesn’t focus on any programming aired on the station, or any wrongdoing by anyone who works there.

Earlier this month, a senior Fox legal executive filed a response to MAD’s petition and the informal objections, saying the content aired on Fox’s cable news channels was an entirely separate matter from WTXF’s license renewal — and he urged the FCC to look at the situation accordingly.

In his reply brief, Fox Senior Vice President for Legal Affairs Joe Di Scipio said Fox had a First Amendment right to air whatever it wanted on its cable networks, and that the content fell outside the scope of the FCC’s regulatory abilities. The entire petition is simply an attempt to draw media attention to their case, Di Scipio claimed.

“Given the degree to which MAD has disregarded applicable precedent and established legal principles, together with an ongoing press campaign it and the member who served as the petition’s declarant have built around the petition, it is clear that MAD seeks to conscript the [FCC] into a public relations campaign that has no place in a broadcast license renewal proceeding,” Di Scipio, who once served as an attorney for the FCC, wrote in his reply brief.

Shortly after Fox responded, Padden emailed The Desk with a statement urging the FCC to move forward with a hearing on the matter.

“Never before in the entire recorded history of the [FCC] has the agency been confronted with a broadcast license renewal applicant who, just a few months ago, was found by a court of law to have repeatedly presented false news,” Padden said.

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About the Author:

Matthew Keys

Matthew Keys is the publisher of The Desk and reports on the business and policy matters involving the broadcast television, streaming video and radio industries. He previously worked for Thomson Reuters, Disney-ABC, Tribune Broadcasting and McNaughton Newspapers. Matthew is based in Northern California, has won numerous awards in the field of journalism, and is a member of IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors).